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Thought leadership comes from doing, not talking

By Toby Conlon, Senior Associate Director 

Photo of business hands holding blackboard and writing PRODUCTIVITY concept

It just slipped out, but I think I got away with it. I guess you might characterise it as a low audible sigh. It was right at the point on the call when the prospective client rolled out one of those phrases which has been bleached to oblivion. “Yes!” says I chirpily, “of course we can help you with thought leadership. Can we just agree what we think that means for you first…”

Thought leadership is a bit overused in the communications world these days and has become a catch-all for what generally seems to be ‘having an opinion’ or ‘talking about something you want to talk about quite a lot’.

Here are some of the ways we hear it used in our line of work: “how much will thought leadership cost me?”, “we want to do some thought leadership but without putting our head above the parapet”, and my favourite, “can we do some thought leadership please – ideally before 4pm tomorrow.”

Thought leadership it is a brilliant concept. If you’re seen as a thought leader it can improve your reputation, brand equity, and income. Some companies become thought leaders without even realising it. Others have expensive programmes in place to try and achieve it.

But thought leadership in communications is not something that you do. It’s not an activity. It’s a relative position in a market, industry or category, and one that you have to earn. Like corporate reputation, it shouldn’t be valued on internal measures like how many executive blogs are up on the website. Instead, it’s about how people see you in relation to the other companies or brands talking to them about the same things.

To be the thought leader people have to see you setting the agenda,again and again.  So here’s the trap. While it’s about how people see you, it can’t just be achieved through really good communications. A robust and sustainable thought leadership position is going to be built on what you’re doing and not just what you’re saying. Offering a great product or service which no-one else does is the best foundation because you’re declaring that you believe there’s a new and better way to do things, and you’re proving it. It’s no surprise that businesses who have done this are not only the thought leader but often the industry and category leaders too, like Apple and PayPal. Another strong foundation is the structure, governance or process of your business itself.

Unilever and Interface, a modular carpet tile company, have both made significant changes to their business practices more sustainable. They’ve been brave and longsighted and are recognised as such by their stakeholders and customers. Again, it’s no surprise that they have quickly become thought leaders inside and outside their industries.

In essence, it’s much easier to behave yourself, rather than talk yourself, into pole position. This brings me back round to my prospective client asking to have a thought leadership programme. It’s right to communicate about topics where the company excels or has a strong opinion, but let’s be careful that a programme doesn’t just become about corporate visibility and share of voice. Let’s ask what the single biggest question facing your industry is and then reach back into the business to find out what you’re doing to answer it. If any part of that answer is unique, surprising and demands attention then the seeds of  ‘thought leadership’ are there.